Maine OKs Sports Betting, But Tribal Monopoly May Not Last

On May 2, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a bill that gave gaming tribes the exclusive right to mobile sportsbooks, with commercial casinos, OTBs and racetracks permitted to offer retail books. But at least one lawmaker says the tribal monopoly should not stand.

Maine OKs Sports Betting, But Tribal Monopoly May Not Last

On May 2, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a bill that gives the state’s tribes exclusive rights to operate mobile sports betting. The state’s two commercial casinos as well as OTBs and racetracks can offer retail sportsbooks. The law will go into effect 90 days after the legislative session ends.

The bill grew from negotiations between Mills and the Wabanaki Nations, which include the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation. For a time, Mills threatened to veto her own bill if the legislature insisted on also passing a tribal sovereignty bill that she opposes. LD 1626 would greatly expand the rights of the state’s indigenous tribes, treating them like most federally recognized tribes in other states.

Under the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980, the tribes are now akin to municipalities subject to state law, rather than sovereigns equal to the state.

That sovereignty bill is in legislative limbo, but the tribes have no intention of letting the issue drop. They issued a joint letter that states, “Permanent sovereignty restoration remains the legislative priority for the Wabanaki Nations, and it will continue to be our priority moving forward.”

Meanwhile, under the sports betting bill, LD 585, the tribes control mobile sports betting, leaving the less lucrative retail sector to the casinos, OTBs and racetracks. Mills said the new law “provides meaningful economic opportunities for the Wabanaki Nations. It incentivizes investment in tribal communities, and it formalizes a collaboration process on policy that sets the foundation for a stronger relationship in the future.”

Senator Joseph Baldacci originally opposed the sports betting bill that gave exclusivity to tribes, but voted for it “because it was amended to include in-person sports for casinos and OTBs. The original bill would have given all rights to the tribes. This will be a net plus for Bangor, which I represent.” The freshman senator was formerly mayor of Bangor, which is home to one of the state’s two commercial casinos, Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway, a Penn National Gaming property. The Oxford Casino in southern Maine is owned by Churchill Downs Inc.

“I had worked for the passage last year of the sports betting bill that would have provided a competitive market, that would have given license to the tribes and the two casinos,” said Baldacci. “I would have preferred a competitive market where the tribes were included but not the exclusive owners. But I was pleased enough by this bill, because Bangor gets something out of it.”

Rep. Jennifer Poirier participated in the process since the bill was presented to the Judiciary Committee, of which she is a member.

“The bill first came to us last year in committee when it was a totally different bill and had nothing to do with gambling,” said Poirier. “But the governor and tribes were working together behind closed doors. They knew (Mills) wasn’t going to give them complete sovereignty.”

The result, said Poirier, was LB 585, a three-part bill. “The first part creates a tribal-state collaboration, which says the governor and tribal leaders should meet annually and creates liaisons between tribes and departments. It’s a feel-good piece. Another piece creates tax exemptions for certain incomes and persons. The third piece is gaming, specific to online and sports betting.

“I’ve been following this bill for two years,” Poirier continued. “I don’t agree with it, because it does create a monopoly” and prohibits land-based casinos from participating “in the most lucrative part,” mobile betting.

Other states “have been very successful in allowing a competitive market in mobile sports betting,” she said. “That’s something Maine is going to lose out on that’s going to totally benefit tribal entities.”

She added, “For several years now the tribes have been requesting to have casinos and participate in other forms of gaming. LB 1252, which is still on the appropriations table, but hasn’t been funded yet, would have opened things up for the tribes. They could have had a facility. It would have given them more options.”

Despite LD 585’s passage, Poirier predicts that the tribes’ monopoly on mobile bets may not last. “Down the road it will probably be contested in the legislature. LD 585 could be changed by the legislature, but the sovereignty bill would require the legislature, governor and Congress to change. Eventually the legislature will make that happen to let others get a piece of the pie.”

There are concerns, said Poirier, “that even tribal members have about this going through. As a committee member and a representative, I have talked to tribal people that have grave concerns about tribal leadership having access to these type of funds, given the track record they have running businesses in this state.”

She claims they have had series of businesses. “None of these businesses have worked out,” he says. “Without oversight it’s questionable how this will turn out. It’s something we will have to sit back and watch, and make sure not just the tribal governments but the tribal people get some benefit from this bill.”

Milt Champion, executive director of the state’s Gambling Control Unit, supports the Gambling Control Board which controls the state’s two casinos and advanced deposit wagering, charitable gaming and fantasy contests.

“We’re the guys on the ground, so to speak,” said Champion. “We do all the regulatory oversight, the auditing and licensing.”

Asked for the current wisdom on what the state will realize from sports betting, Champion cited recent studies by Oxford Economics that Maine would take in about $2.7 million in taxes annually. Maine is a small state, of course, with a population of 1.3 million.

The bill stipulates that the director can issue no more than 10 facility sports betting licenses to the two casinos, off-track betting facilities and racetracks. Each license will cost $4,000.

“There will be quite a bit of work,” said Champion. “We can give a temporary license, but I can’t even see doing that without further rule-making. I think there’s a lot of rule-making that we’d really have to finalize before we go live. If I hit the bricks hard, hopefully we can get it done by the end of the year. But meantime, my day’s pretty full.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.